Over the past number of years, the Guild of Sommeliers (Guildsomm.com) has been holding focused blind tastings for Guildsomm members in Toronto. They are usually jointly hosted by Master Sommeliers Jennifer Huether and Bruce Wallner, at Bruce’s SommFactory. The latest tasting was on Thursday November 19, 2015 in Toronto. Now, usually what happens at a blind tasting stays at a blind tasting! But what the heck, it can be so much fun I want to tell you about it, and give you a sense of how it’s done in a structured environment.
For me, ongoing training and education is a large part of what I do. Tasting wines “blind” forces you to focus on the structure of the wine (sweetness, acidity, alcohol, body and tannins), and on the key additional factors that define it. Doing this within the challenging and rigorous framework of the Court of Master Sommeliers’ education programs at the SommFactory, under the supervision of Bruce’s fine tasting skills, has been a key to my better understanding and appreciating wine. That’s not to imply that “what’s in the glass” is all that matters, but rather just the opposite: both broad general knowledge and deep specific knowledge about wines, wine styles and regions provide the required framework in which your assessment of what’s in the glass can be made.
The event itself had two flights of wines: four whites and four reds. In both cases the flights were presented as having similar structures across the wines, with the challenge being to distinguish the finer differences in structure, and other characteristics that differentiated and possibly identified them.
Broadly speaking, the four whites were dry, with elevated acidity, medium alcohol, and medium body. But here the fun begins. I’m not going to bore you with complete (and repetitive) “grid” tasting notes, but here are notes on what stood out for me, relative to the general framework or pattern just mentioned.
- Wine 1: acidity wasn’t just elevated, it was high. A very crisp, fresh nose and palate, with stony, chalky, limestone minerality. No oak. Pretty, floral, lime, green apple aromas and flavours. Clearly cool climate (high acidity, modest alcohol), likely old world (more mineral than fruit forward). Structurally, it could almost be Melon de Bourgogne, but there was not much evidence of extensive lees contact, and the flavour profile was too “pretty”. Acidity was too high to be Pinot Grigio, though the fruit leaned in that direction. Chablis? Even higher acidity than I’d expect for Chablis, and not enough lees contact for a better quality example, though my notes suggest that as a strong possibility. A final alternative would be very good Loire Sauvignon Blanc, but I just couldn’t find that hint of grass or herbaceousness I thought should be there. So I was flumoxed. But others drew the correct conclusion: Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé. In fact it was the 2014 Pouilly-Fumé from Domaine Bonnard. I guess my blind tasting focus wasn’t quite there, at this point, though even after the fact I couldn’t find that missing herbaceous quality I would have expected.
- Wine 2: structurally the “average” profile mentioned above. Richer, fuller aromas and flavours than wine 1 — still fresh, floral, citrus-lemon and red apple. But add in a honeyed note, with melon and peach notes. Possible older oak exposures, some lees contact, and a bitterness on the palate and finish. Not quite as aromatic as I’d expect from Viognier, possibly a Marsanne blend that contains some Viognier. But the structure and flavour profile, with that bitterness, point pretty firmly to high quality Pinot Grigio. And that’s what it was: the 2014 Jermann Pinot Grigio from Friuli. I didn’t recognize the particular wine, but I’d tasted it about a month earlier. For interest, here is my review that is part of my November 14, 2015 Vintages/LCBO release notes: Read Review
- Wine 3: immediately a honeyed-richness on the nose, with slatey minerality and a nuance of TDN, the chemical that leads to rubbery petrol notes as some wines age. While the palate tasted quite dry, there was some residual sugar that was masked by high acidity. This is a wine that was pretty hard to find possible alternatives for — clearly Riesling, with the only questions being its origin and its age. I was thinking old world, the Pfalz or Rheingau (the latter being my guess), with a little age, perhaps 2011 or 2010. But my out-of-practice thinking forgot the other great source for dry old world Riesling, Alsace. And of course that was it: the 2009 (slightly older than I thought) Hugel Jubilee Riesling.
- Wine 4: I found a little more colour in this wine relative to the other three, possibly suggesting age, grape variety or winemaking differences. I was immediately struck by a bruised apple aroma that unfortunately dominated my thinking. There was evidence of lees contact (lactic, cheese rind, yoghurt on the nose, a slight creaminess on the palate), a suggestion of wood exposure, with lemon/citrus backing up the apple aromas. Acidity was strongly elevated. That bruised apple aroma and flavour took me a little off track, and I didn’t notice that this aspect of the wine receded as I went through the tasting. Definitely cool climate, with Chardonnay as a major possibility, But I also considered the Loire and Chenin Blanc, and in the end that was my choice. In fact it was Chablis (as my notes virtually shout out), the 2010 Domaine Billaud-Simon Mont de Milieu Chablis 1er Cru. Again this is a wine I tasted in mid-October, and here is my review published in my notes on the November 14, 2015 Vintages release: Read Review.
I was pretty happy with the first half of the tasting, particularly with the excellent reminders: (a) make sure to canvass all the reasonable options, and then (b) eliminate those that really don’t fit. Of course this strategy assumes that the quality of the wines is high enough to warrant this discipline, but that’s a given with the Guildsomm/SommFactory tastings. One of the reasons that blind tasting often doesn’t work well is when the wines that are used just aren’t truly representative of their variety, style and origin.
The second flight consisted of four red wines, all with elevated acidity and tannins, and alcohol in the moderate to elevated range. I find red wines much harder, but looked forward to the challenge! The hint was that in addition to structural nuances, look for the “quality” of the fruit (tart or slightly under-ripe fruit, fully ripe fruit, over-ripe, perhaps jammy or cooked fruit, dried out fruit, and finally raisined fruit) as an indicator of origin and style.
Wine 1: mostly red fruit, some tart and fresh, some ripe, slightly candied cherry notes, a suggestion of brett/barnyard, earth and twigs, with modest oak notes. Rather elevated acidity (not quite high) and elevated tannins, though acid-driven. Moderate climate (elevated but fairly balanced acidity), and old world (rather restrained fruit). Tannins too high for Pinot Noir, but Nebbiolo or Sangiovese were likely candidates. In the end, since it seemed to be acid-driven rather than tannin-driven, I went with Sangiovese — at least a Chianti Classico Riserva, because of the wood exposure. Possibly 2010, though it could be as young as 2012. In fact it was the 2010 Castello di Volpaia Riserva Chianti Classico.
Wine 2: some volatile acidity on the nose, lots of woody resin and cedary notes, vanilla, earth, twigs. Fruit was subdued, drying out, with leathery notes. Structurally this fits the original profile: elevated acidity, medium alcohol, elevated by softening tannins, with lactic, woody, resinous notes fairly dominant on the palate, along with coconut and vanilla. Very much old world, though moderate or possibly warmer climate. Possibly Sangiovese again, but the wood treatment, with its suggestion of at least some American oak, and the modest, evolving fruit, triggered the idea of old school Rioja. So Tempranillo, probably Gran Reserva, older than 2010. The answer: 2008 Baron del Ley Gran Reserva.
Wine 3: a deep purple wine, still purple-red on the rim. Ripe plus dried fruit character, rich ripe plums, blackberry, black currant, with some mint, herbal and earthy notes. The wine was dry with noticeable residual sugar, medium acidity, elevated to high alcohol, and elevated tannins. Ripe to jammy and cooked fruit on the palate, even raisin-like. The mint-menthol note was fairly noticeable on the palate too. The elevated alcohol, moderate acid, ripe to jammy fruit and that menthol note all suggest Australian Shiraz, in the style (but not the age) of the mid 2000s rather than the new wave cool climate Shiraz that is becoming more common. The answer: 2010 John’s Blend Margarete’s Shiraz, from Langhorn Creek.
Wine 4: the final red wine was deep ruby, with red on the rim. Elevated lactic, vanilla, resin, roasted coffee aromas, with over-ripe and raisined fruit. The structure showed elevated acidity, high alcohol and elevated tannins. The plum, cherry and berry flavours were ripe, jammy and raisined on the palate. Some odd herbal and almost under-ripe notes as well. That fruit quality really points to a dried fruit wine, and Amarone makes sense here. The wine has some age, so I guessed 2010. The answer: 2011 Cinque Stelle Amarone della Valpolicella.
So that’s how it works. I’m not capturing the uncertainty of my guesses, and almost certainly I am understating the shakiness of my reasoning! However, I hope that you can see how tasting and background learning go together. Just tasting widely, as I am able to do, isn’t enough, even combined with the discipline of an excellent, ongoing mentor. To improve your blind tasting (and non-blind tasting) skills, and frankly just to enhance your enjoyment of wine, you need to keep learning about wines, the regions and sub-regions they come from, including climate, winegrowing and winemaking techniques. It’s not just about “wine facts”, it’s about how those wine facts impact what’s in the glass.